It’s a great time to be a craft brewer—just not in Georgia

Brewers in Georgia still cannot sell their beer directly to customers
The politics of craft beer

Illustration by Raymond Biesinger

In tiny Greensboro, Georgia, the old North West Street cotton warehouse is in near ruin, its roof sagging and trash strewn across the dusty floor. But Taylor Lamm, a 33-year-old Augusta native, sees a second life in the century-old walls. He plans to launch Oconee Brewing Company. there this fall.

Near the shores of Lake Oconee, 75 miles east of downtown Atlanta, Oconee Brewing could become a craft beer oasis between Athens and Macon. But success is far from assured: Lamm is opening a brewery in a state that is notoriously unfriendly to them. Despite their best efforts to update Depression-era laws initially designed to prohibit monopolies, brewers in Georgia still cannot sell their beer directly to customers. Instead they have to go through distributors. In the case of Oconee Brewing, Lamm is considering a deal with McDonough-based Georgia Crown Distributing.

So come fall, if the Yesterday Cafe around the block from the brewery needs a new keg of Oconee Brewing beer, Georgia Crown would have to send a truck to Greensboro to deliver it to the restaurant—a nearly three-hour round trip. It’s these kinds of illogical restrictions that small brewers say are stunting the growth of their industry in Georgia, which ranks 48th in the country in the number of breweries per capita.

As evidence, they point to North Carolina, which loosened its laws over the past decade and has become a craft beer powerhouse. Indeed, three of the country’s major craft brewers—Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues, and New Belgium—have opened breweries in North Carolina, home to 10,000 craft beer jobs. And Portland, Oregon, a city of 620,000, boasts more breweries than the entire state of Georgia. Since South Carolina began allowing the sale of up to 48 ounces of beer for on-site consumption three years ago, the number of breweries has tripled, from eight to 24. While craft brewing is a fast-growing industry in most of the country, Georgia remains one of only two states—Mississippi is the other—that prohibits on-site sales.

State Representative Michael Caldwell, a Woodstock Republican, had long assumed that Georgia’s beer laws were a by-product of a “Bible Belt” mentality. But after visiting Reformation Brewery in his district and doing some research, he concluded that legal reforms are instead being blocked by the outsized political influence of the distributors.

Since 2010 wholesale companies have made nearly $600,000 in campaign donations to state lawmakers—not counting contributions from executives and their families. (In contrast, small brewers gave less than $60,000 over the same period.) Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle alone received more than $100,000 just in 2014 from the lobby and its supporters. The contributions have paid off: Two 2013 bills to allow direct sales, including one with bipartisan support, never got out of committee. The 2015 “Beer Jobs” bill, which allowed variable pricing of brewery tours depending on how much and what type of beer a customer wanted to take home, passed only after language to legalize direct sales was removed—effectively gutting it.

The status quo, the distributors argue, is good for them and for brewers. Distributors have the clout to make room for their clients’ product on store shelves, says Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association assistant director Martin Smith. “If you look at the past six years, the number of brewers in Georgia has doubled,” Smith says. “In the first three years of their existence, they typically grow at a 100 percent rate. That points to a system that provides opportunity.”

It’s also true that, despite their griping, only two Georgia craft breweries have shut down since 2004, when Dogwood Brewing ceased operations rather than continue with its distributor. And one of the oldest beer-makers in the state, SweetWater Brewing, is now the 18th-largest brewery in the nation. Still, small brewers say the deck is stacked against them. For example, under state regulations, brewers wanting to change wholesalers must suspend Georgia sales for four years unless their distribution company releases them from their contract or they can prove the wholesaler violated the agreement.

Georgia brewers have their own lobby in the form of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild. But it’s the David to the distributors’ Goliath. To gain approval for variable tour pricing, it had to promise not to lobby for direct sales again until next year. The guild’s failure to push meaningful changes through the General Assembly is discouraging to brewers like Glenn Golden, who founded JailHouse Brewing Company in Hampton in 2009. He began with a healthy knowledge of the law but underestimated its impact on his business. “There’s no way I’d start here again,” he says.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican whose district is home to two small breweries, doesn’t believe his colleagues are in any rush to modernize Georgia’s beer laws. Case in point: Caldwell couldn’t even get approval for a House study committee to consider potential reforms, although such committees are commonly used to deal with controversial issues. Updates to the law may come, Ralston says, but they’ll be incremental.

“The longer things remain the same, the harder it is to change them in one fell swoop,” he says.

In the meantime the local craft beer industry will have to survive on the enthusiasm of true believers like Oconee Brewing’s Lamm. “We know what we we’re getting into. I’ve been asked, ‘Are you thinking about moving to another state?’ That’s not the case. Georgia is home.”

Cider house rules
Under Georgia’s arcane rules, Marietta’s Treehorn Cider is classified as a malt beverage producer—although it doesn’t use malt—placing it under the same restrictions as breweries. Atlanta’s Urban Tree cidery, on the other hand, operates as a “Georgia farm winery,” which allows it to sell growlers and cans on-site—and even serve cocktails in its tasting room. The difference? Urban Tree’s apples come from a northeast Georgia orchard managed by its owner. How do you like them loopholes? Jim Vorel

Editor’s Note: When this article was published in our June 2016 issue, Oconee Brewing Company was known as Lake Country Brewing Co. This version reflects the brewery’s name change.

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.